Why Our Candidates Should Be Socialists
In favor of Class Struggle Elections
The electoral landscape of the US is uniquely difficult to organize in: we have extreme barriers to creating new parties, a broken electoral college system, and a weakened labor movement largely subsumed into the capitalist Democratic Party. The closest thing to an electoral left in America pre-2016 were socially knit-together organizations that largely provided endorsements for Progressive Democrats but had no mass base. Examples such as the Richmond Progressive Alliance and Bernie Sanders were the exception, not the rule.
A lot has changed since BLM, Occupy, and the first candidacy of Bernie Sanders. Waves of strikes and mass protests of millions across the country make that progressive endorsement machine look irrelevant by comparison. Organizations such as Sunrise and a constellation of BLM groups have grown out of these movements along with a crop of more dedicated progressive electoral organizations (i.e. Working Families Party, Justice Democrats, Our Revolution). But DSA stands out as unique among these organizations in advocating for a specific politics beyond policy or amelioration within the system, with our own homegrown electoral successes like the recent New York sweep, Cori Bush in St. Louis, to the Chicago aldermen.
As we think about our electoral strategy going forward, we should consider what makes a good candidate for a DSA campaign, beyond the criteria laid out in the Class Struggle Elections proposal. A key to a good DSA candidate should be identifying as a socialist and here’s why:
One of the most important tasks of our candidates running for office should be to agitate 1) for specific redistributive and anti-oppression demands and 2) for class consciousness and open confrontation with capitalists. Many progressives do the first but it takes a socialist to do the second. When on mainstream media or at a massive rally, a candidate should be able to articulate specifically to millions that the working class has the power to bring about real change, and to popularize the term socialism and the idea of class struggle. A candidate should be an educator and that takes a degree of political education on the part of the candidate themself, namely from identifying with and having an understanding of socialist theory and learning lessons from past socialist movements in and out of office. They don’t need to have read Kapital but socialism is increasingly popular and they are best positioned to articulate what it is.
When socialist elected officials are in office, they are under an immense amount of pressure to conform to the capitalist parties and agendas that dominate American government. Publicly identifying as a socialist is a step towards setting yourself apart from that establishment and highlighting the contradictions of a Democratic Party that can contain both AOC and Joe Manchin. Identifying as a progressive may seem like threading the needle and acting as the left-wing of the Democrats, but this has been the American left’s strategy for decades to little effect. Open class conflict within the party itself is crucial to bringing about a time when a working-class party with a mass base is possible, likely through what is referred to as “The Dirty Break”.
Likewise, DSA faces pressure from progressive organizations and non-profits to realign the Democrats through electing more progressives. Again, we will sometimes overlap with our endorsements and work together on campaigns, but by insisting on only endorsing open socialists we innoculate our own organization against the rightward pull of these groups.
Commitment to Class Struggle
Elected officials in the US face almost no accountability for their actions; if a progressive candidate runs on a key reform to benefit the working class but then takes no real action around it in office, the only recourse often presented is to vote them out next time. While exerting pressure on non-socialist elected officials can be an effective tactic, it is far more preferable to have elected officials that are already answerable to a base, specifically a democratic organization like DSA or a rank-and-file lead union, and publicly identify with it. Right now, DSA can serve as a testing ground for what this relationship might be like in a future party, where it's not the candidate in office but our organization and our politics.
DSA runs electoral campaigns like few other organizations and when we throw down, we should expect our candidates to throw down for us, not just as dues-paying members, but as tribunes of our politics and priorities, and this means proudly wearing the title of socialist.